Rousseau on War and Peace by Stanley Hoffman

Stanley Hoffman, “Rousseau on war and peace,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, (1963), pp. 317-33.


For many reasons Rousseau’s writings on international relations should interest students both of Rousseau and of world politics. The former have been celebrating the 200th anniversary of Emile and Of The Social Contract. Those works, and the Discourse on Inequality, have been analyzed incessantly and well. But Rousseau’s ideas on war and peace, dispersed in various books and fragments, some of which re lost, have had only occasional attention, and some of that is of the hit-and-miss variety. Incomplete as his own treatment of the relations between states remains, the frequency and intensity of his references indicate the depth of his concern.

Students in search of theories of international politics will also find Rousseau’s views useful in the interconnected areas of empirical or causal theory and of normative theory. In the quest for models of state behavior or in the analysis of the nature and causes of war social scientists could do (and have often done) worse than take and test Rousseau’s formulations: in Arnold Wolfers’s words, they were “far removed from amateurish guesswork” and “cannot fail to be valuable to anyone seeking to understand what makes the clock tick in international relations.” Significantly, Rousseau’s remarks point to the same conclusions as the exhaustive and systematic study of peace and war recently completed by the most profound contemporary writer on the subject, Raymond Aron. For today’s revolutionary system of international politics confirms the sharp and gloomy analysis of Rousseau, whose pessimism was all too easily discounted in the moderate system which died at Sarajevo.

More specifically, the normative aspect of Rousseau’s writings is relevant today because of his awareness of a dilemma which also dominated Kant’s thought and which has become vital in any thinking about world politics in the nuclear age. We can no longer afford to be preoccupied only with the issue to which political philosophers used to give most of their attention-the “conditions of a just peace” in domestic society, the search for the good state, for the legitimate political regime. We are also (perhaps primarily) concerned with the conditions of peace in international society, because the very institution of the state—celebrated as the source of order, liberty and morality for citizens—has also turned out to be a source of international chaos and consequently of physical danger and moral agony to them. How to be both a good citizen of a nation, and a good citizen of the world; how to prevent the state from oppressing its subjects or from obliging them to behave immorally toward outsiders, under the pressure of the international competition, without meanwhile destroying the bond of loyalty and the sense of identity which tie each citizen to his compatriots–these have become major issues for political thinkers today. Rousseau considered those issues at some length, and thought he could resolve the dilemma: the formula which he devised, in The Social Contract, in order to rescue man from the fall into which the passing of the state of nature had plunged mankind, was also supposed to put an end to international disorder. However, the philosopher who was the sharpest critic of man’s plight in society (both domestic and international) provides “a way out” of the international jungle he had so brilliantly described, only if “a way out” means an escape, not a solution.